Joanna Hogg doesn’t make movies that conform to typical audience expectations. There’s a tacit agreement between viewer and filmmaker when someone buys a ticket to a film that’s generally informed by a hundred years of cinematic structure. A drama teacher once told me that great theatre was often about the most important day of your character’s life. While this is often true, it doesn’t have to be the case. Plenty of filmmakers have been eschewing the concept that every scene has to be plot-driven or even that every plot point has to be foreshadowed and cinematically underlined. They demand more from their audience than your typical Hollywood fare, asking them to engage with the characters more than having a story laid out for them in simple, predictable beats. All of this preamble is to say that “The Souvenir” is not your typical Sundance movie. It’s challenging, but arguably more rewarding in the end than anything I saw in Park City this year.
Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne stars as Julie, a young film school student learning some of the tough lessons of the creative form while struggling to make ends meet in ‘80s London. Julie is trying to find her voice, and she seems inspired by the arrival into her life of a charismatic man named Anthony (Tom Burke). At first, Julie and Anthony don’t seem to have much in common. He often lords intellectual superiority over her, and seems almost condescending, but she’s drawn to him and inspired by him. And then we learn that he’s not as perfect as he first seems. Swinton herself also stars as, of course, Julie’s mother.
“The Souvenir” features extended, often-improvised scenes of mundane, daily life. Characters go for a walk, make a meal, bounce ideas off each other. It can be narratively challenging, but it grounds the film in such a realistic way that when Hogg does turn up the volume on the film’s plot, it contains incredible emotional resonance. She’s also a very formally striking director, shooting on film and rarely moving her camera. She’ll leave it in a corner of the apartment or looking through the bedroom door and allow characters to come in and out of frame, as if we’re simply spying on a private moment.
To be blunt, Swinton-Byrne gives one of the best debut performances I’ve ever seen, completely grounding Julie in something that feels 100% genuine. We forget we’re watching an actress, especially when one considers how personal this film is for the filmmaker. The result is a piece of work that plays out almost like a shared memory, one that is both incredibly specific to these people but also universal for all of us who have experienced love, loss, growth, and finding our creative voices. And then Hogg goes and completely sticks the landing, producing a pair of final shots that I will never forget. Be patient with “The Souvenir” and you won’t either.